Greg Archer, co-author of the Mindset for IELTS series, considers how learners can become more familiar with the public Band Descriptors for the IELTS writing test, thereby enabling them to produce scripts that are more likely to meet the right requirements and deliver in the right areas.
Since I started teaching IELTS classes, I’ve had a recurring problem which can bring teeth-grinding levels of frustration both to my students and to me.
If you have been teaching IELTS for any length of time, you may well be familiar with The Stuckon Phenomenon. This describes the situation where a student gets ‘Stuckon’ the same score and, whatever they do and however many times they retake the test, results day comes around and they inevitably announce, with a heavy heart, “I got a 5.5 in Writing. AGAIN.”.
Why, I wondered, when someone had been giving me scripts that were clearly worth a higher score, did they find themselves hitting that brick wall once more? A common reason for this is that they had been thrown by the question set for Task 2. The topic was unfamiliar, or difficult, so they couldn’t find much to write about.
Here’s a suggestion that I have found to work: think functionally. There is a section in Mindset for IELTS Level 3 which asks students to consider the role of function and how it relates to sentences and paragraphs. Most of them are already familiar with the notion of the topic sentence and how its function is to convey the main idea of the paragraph. If they go on to consider what could potentially happen functionally with the other sentences in a paragraph, they could find themselves being able to produce a wider range of ideas.
Here’s how this method is presented in the course book:
1: Students are given a topic sentence (in answer to an ‘advantages and disadvantages’ question about contact sports):
One obvious benefit of participating in a contact sport is the improvement in one’s physical health and well-being.
2: They are then given several follow-on sentences and have to decide which function is being expressed. What is this one doing?:
Regularly taking part in a demanding and potentially dangerous activity leads to enhanced physical conditioning, as well as improved speed of thought and reaction time.
The eagle-eyed will have noticed that this is expressing cause and effect. The words ‘leads to’ are a bit of a giveaway.
3: How about this?:
Despite the fact that there have been many accidents and even occasional fatalities, the vast majority of people who take part gain a high level of fitness and rarely, if ever, suffer injury.
That’s right; here we have concession, expressed with a ‘despite’ clause.
On top of these two functions, the exercise sets out how to support the topic sentence by giving a specific example and also how to use addition to strengthen an argument.
What influence does this have on their ability to produce a rounded essay?
Well, I have found it allows my students to expand their ideas better. If they think about sentence function, they often find that they can consider the question from a wider variety of angles.
(A good way for them to become familiar with this concept is to analyse previous essays they have written, considering which sentence has which function and identifying the function that they tend to over-rely on. I bet you anything it’s cause and effect.)
Once they have this cracked, you can help them to notice which grammatical structures are appropriate for which function. We saw in the above example how a nice ‘despite’ clause goes hand in hand with concession, which also sits very comfortably with a ‘while’ clause.
Have they come up with a cause and effect idea?
Well, there are the obvious lexical chunks that fit nicely, such as ‘leads to’ or ‘can result in’.
For example: More practice leads to fewer difficulties.
However, you also have the ‘the + comparative…, the + comparative’ structure.
For example: The more you practise this, the less difficult it will become.
And don’t forget hypothetical cause and effect.
For example: If you practised this more often, it would become less difficult.
These structures do two things: they help the candidate express a greater variety of ideas and increase the complexity of their writing, so they are ticking boxes in both task response and grammatical range and accuracy.
If a student understands this last fact, it becomes clear that they are successfully doing the most important thing of all: giving the examiner what they are looking for.
Want to delve deeper into this topic? Catch Greg’s webinar below.
Find more advice and ideas for the IELTS classroom here.